by Mia Kirsh
Everyone by now has heard about TV personality Kathie Lee's "embarrassment" at learning that her clothing line was being manufactured in sweatshops paying slave wages, exploiting women and children and otherwise sullying her "wholesome" image. Investigations are now revealing that Kathie Lee's clothing is just the tip of the sweatshop iceberg. Many well known companies follow similar practices hidden from public view.
Disney is one of the worst offenders. In fact, the National Labor Committee (NLC) found that more than half of the assembly plants in Haiti producing Disney clothing were violating that country's minimum wage law. In addition sexual harassment is common in the plants, pregnant women are forced to quit so the company can avoid maternity benefits, and workers speaking up about the miserable conditions are fired.
Co-op America, an organization dedicated to social justice through using economic power to effect positive change, just published an extensive study of sweatshops and what we as consumers and activists can do about them. (See Co-op America Quarterly, Summer 1997 for the full report.)
Co-op America's report presents valuable information to help consumers distinguish between products manufactured in sweatshops, and those produced under humane working conditions. Companies who exploit their workers should be exposed so that the public can boycott these companies' products. Conversely, there are some conscientious companies out there, and they deserve to be publicized as much as the exploiters need to be boycotted.
Co-op America has constructed a "Ladder of Labor Responsibility," with top rungs being the companies with the best working conditions and environmentally friendly practices, and the bottom rungs being companies with the worst practices. Here are a few examples.
Rugs are often made by children. Millions aged 5 to 14 in Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, India and other countries around the world toil at rug looms. They are sometimes shackled to the loom for years, tying knots in rugs sold in America and other Western countries. Many suffer lifelong physical as well as psychological damage in these horrible conditions. Currently there are efforts to try to free some of these children and give them opportunities for education and rehabilitation.
We can all help pressure companies to stop using inhumane practices in making their products. It is a myth that corporations must exploit workers in order to sell goods for low prices. These practices, in fact, put downward pressure on the world economy, as more people cannot earn enough money to live.
When American consumers have been polled, they clearly do not want to subsidize inhumane working conditions. When pressured, companies have demonstrated they can deliver products at good prices while providing fair wages and working conditions, as the recent example of hand-stitched leather soccer balls proved.
Pakistani children 6-14 years old were crammed into dirt-floored shacks, laboring over tiny stitches that crippled undeveloped fingers sewing six sides of 32 panels to create one "handmade" soccer ball. The ball would sell for $30-50 in America, and the child would receive about 30 cents. Balls were sold by Nike, Reebok, Adidas and other familiar names.
Consumer pressure led to the world governing body of soccer signing a code of conduct forbidding child labor or forced labor in soccer ball production. As a result, now Nike and Reebok plan to build soccer ball factories in Pakistan employing only adults and developing education programs for children. These programs will also employ other members of the family when children are removed from the factory.
Consumers must be ever more vigilant in making their buying choices. There are several things individuals can do, suggested by Co-op America:
For more information, here are some organizations working on this
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